Certified Peer Specialists
What is a Peer Specialist?
A peer specialist is an individual who has personal lived experience in recovery from a mental health or substance use condition and who has been trained and certified to support their peers in gaining hope and moving forward in their own recovery journeys. Training involves unique, specialized education in competencies that support those whom the peer support specialist serves in the recovery process. These competencies are the foundation for the certification exam.
Peer specialists may work in a variety of different settings. Some may work alongside mental health providers in clinical settings such as hospitals and crisis centers. Others may work in independent, peer-run organizations. Peer specialists may also work on support teams in housing agencies or employment organizations, or may work on case management.
Designated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) as an evidence-based model of care, peer support services delivered by peer specialists have been demonstrated to reduce symptoms, create commitment to treatment plans and goals, improve peers’ quality of life, and lower health care costs.
As a person who has traveled a similar path, peer specialists foster hope for recovery and role model the reality of wellness to the peers they serve. Peer specialists:
- Help their peers identify and build on their strengths
- Help peers create individual service plans based on recovery goals and steps to achieve those goals
- Assist peers in gaining information and support from the community to make their goals a reality
- Use recovery-oriented tools to help their peers address challenges
- Assist others to build their own self-directed wellness plans
- Support peers in their decision making
- Set up and sustain peer self-help and educational groups
- Cultivate their peers’ ability to make informed, independent choices
- Offer a sounding board and a shoulder to lean on…and more!
Peer specialists may go by different names in different settings—for example, peer support specialists, certified recovery support specialists, peer support technicians, peer coaches, peer bridgers—but they have a common commitment to assisting their peers from a strengths-focused perspective. Utilizing peers with shared experiences to deliver services is empowering, and research demonstrates its effectiveness.
Generally, a peer specialist is required to identify as an individual with personal lived experience in recovery from a mental health or substance use condition who is willing to share their recovery story as appropriate. Some states offer their training and certification only to people who have received or are currently receiving publicly funded services, whereas other states only require that you have at some time been a user of services, regardless of whether public or private. Some states have requirements about the length of time a person identifies as having been living in recovery.
Maintaining certification depends on your original training, certification, and your state. The best first step is to contact your state’s certifying body to confirm requirements. If you attended training through a non-profit training organization, rather than a state training, contact the organization to inquire if your certificate expires. If you attended training through a non-profit organization and then certified through your state, ensure that you check in with both the training organization and the state about requirements. It is important not only to inquire about certificate expiration, but also to find out if there are any continuing education requirements from your state, the non-profit organization that you attended training through, or your employer.
State vs. National Certification
At this point, there is no single nationally recognized peer specialist certification. Each state has unique requirements, and some states only accept their own training and certification. Some states accept training and certification from other states and/or from approved training organizations, but still may require that an individual takes the state specific exam. Additional training hours or competencies related to state-specific issues may also be required in certain states. The system in which the peer specialist works or volunteers may also have requirements on this. For example, the United States Department of Veteran Affairs accepts certification for Veteran Peer Support Specialist employment from either an approved not-for-profit training body or the state training and certification from the state where the Veteran is working.
Clinical Services vs. Peer Specialist Services
Clinical services include diagnosis, different types of therapy, or possible prescription of medication. These services are provided by clinically trained and licensed individuals. Historically the clinical perspective has been more focused on stabilization and maintenance, but with the current transformation of the mental health system, their perspective is largely changing to focus on wellness and recovery. Clinical professionals therefore may increasingly seek to support people in achieving goals, using treatments to overcome barriers to those goals.
Peer specialist services are provided by trained and certified individuals who identify as having personal lived experience with a mental health or substance use condition. Peer specialists use their own recovery stories to provide hope, to support people in finding their own inner wisdom, and to set personal goals for recovery. Peer specialists assist individuals in developing skills and finding resources to overcome barriers to the self-identified goals.
The services of peer specialists complement, but do not replace, clinical services.